Doing Better Where You Are

14 Ways to Volunteer in Chicago for Every Kind of Person

Here’s how (and where) to give back in the Windy City.

Urban Rivers

This is an article about helping people. Depending on when you read it, you could be looking for ways to work directly with fellow Chicagoans for the greater good, or for opportunities to help the city from the required comfort of your home. Even though we hope the latter sentiment is dated by the time you see this, the city will always need to band together and use our strengths to better our communities where we can. So here are a few ways to do good in Chicago -- distantly or otherwise -- based on what you know best.

Lloyd Degrane/Alliance for the Great Lakes

For those with a green thumb

The thing about nature is it makes up most of the world around us and some part of it will always need your help. You could contribute to Plant Chicago, which relies on volunteers for virtual classes and donations to help fund STEM programs, research projects, and sustainable food entrepreneurs. Though Chicago doesn’t have city-sponsored composting, you can still become a composting household by signing up for Block Bins, which brings you your own regularly swapped-out, padlocked composting bin that you can share with neighbors. Or you could donate to the Alliance for the Great Lakes. While their most-popular volunteer option, Adopt-a-Lake, is on hold during quarantine, supporting them means aiding the fight to protect the Great Lakes from pollution and invasive species while restoring fisheries and advocating for protective legislation. It’s essentially an insurance policy for summers on the water.

Lakeview Pantry

For the food philanthropist

You may not be able to go out to eat at a restaurant (for now), but you can help get food into the hands of hungry Chicagoans. The Greater Chicago Food Depository needs volunteers ages 18-60 to help pack food at their warehouse near Midway (following strict distancing and sanitizing practices), or if you want to pitch in from home, donations the depository receives go immediately to hungry people in the community. If you can’t make it to the southwest side, Lakeview Pantry on the north side needs volunteers in their warehouse and offers virtual orientation so you’re ready to go on day one. You can also donate to them to support the 40% of Chicagoans living in economic hardship. For something completely virtual, Pilot Light needs teacher or chef volunteers to lead virtual food-education lessons, and any donation you leave for them goes toward funding the Food Education Center and its virtual programs.

Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum

For the STEM supporter

School may be out, but plenty of science and tech organizations are still looking for help. The Chicago chapter of TechGirlz works to empower girls to pursue careers in tech and right now they need virtual teaching assistants for an extremely cool list of virtual classes and workshops. If being a TA isn’t up your alley, you can also donate to TechGirlz to help fund their available courses. If you’ve ever wanted to take care of a nontraditional pet (fox snakes! Button quails!), the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum will let you “adopt” an animal by contributing to its food and care costs. You’ll receive an adoption certificate and, best part, you’ll never have to clean up after your new adoptee. Finally, if you have a graphic design or science background -- like ecology, biology, or horticulture -- Urban Rivers is looking for volunteers to help with virtual lessons about the Chicago River until their River Ranger program (where you kayak the Chicago River for research) reopens post-quarantine. If you studied something outside STEM but still want to help, donations help fund the river’s floating gardens which are installed by students and volunteers (again, via kayaks).

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Tony Santiago/Arts Alliance Illinois

For the artist at heart

While it’s totally fine to not feel creative right now, you can help facilitate an artistic environment for the people who need it most. Changing Worlds offers volunteering opportunities for artists and art teachers to help parents and caretakers play and learn at home. If you can’t teach, you can donate to help keep the program’s art-education curriculum going. You could help Arts Alliance Illinois in its fight for art resources and policies that benefit local artists. During the COVID-19 crisis, donations to the Alliance go directly to artists via the Arts for Illinois Relief Fund, and later they’ll revert to funding lobbying for arts legislation and advocacy for the arts sector.

Colin Boyle/My Block My Hood My City

For the community activist

A culturally rich city full of art, food, and nature is just a collection of features, not a community, if it doesn’t also protect the people who live within it. My Block My Hood My City works to connect all Chicagoans through empathy, hope, and civic responsibility, and during quarantine, they’re looking for volunteers to call senior citizens and check in, like a really compassionate phone bank. You can also donate to fund the Explorers Program, which once coronavirus restrictions loosen, will again organize trips for local teens to visit small businesses and neighborhoods they wouldn’t normally experience. Chicago Hopes for Kids, which provides education support for kids living in the city’s homeless shelters, needs volunteers to act as literacy mentors, and if those opportunities are full when you reach out, you can donate to fund said literacy programs. Finally, Chicago House needs volunteers to help put together safe-sex kits, hygiene kits, and other materials for its community of LGBTQ individuals and those impacted by HIV/AIDS. If you aren’t able to help with packing, you can also donate to the organization to help fund LGBTQ-affirming case support and HIV screening.

While single acts of compassion can feel like a drop in the bucket, remember: This is Chicago, the third most-populous city in the country. Everyone’s little bit can do a lot of good.